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Troops roll in to 'City of Death'

ORPHANS of Somalia's famine sang and cheered for US marines and French legionnaires when they delivered food yesterday, on their first escort mission in the country's bandit-ridden interior.

'This is the best way to spend Christmas ever,' said Marine Captain Sean Moore, 31. 'We get to do a lot of things, Panama, the Gulf war. None of them are like this,' he said as the children squatted in a muddy compound chanting: 'We welcome the Americans with open arms'.

The welcome for the troops on Baidoa's streets, littered with the debris of war, was overwhelmingly warm. Women and barefoot children in soiled rags chanted and waved as the food convoy inched along the road.

'Peace, peace,' said one man through a mouthful of qat, the narcotic leaf many Somalis chew as a mild stimulant.

Marines in two light armoured vehicles and heavily-armed legionnaires in three lorries delivered the food to 620 orphans at a home on the outskirts of Baidoa, Somalia's 'City of Death'.

They set out on the short mission less than eight hours after more than 700 US and French troops arrived in a 70-vehicle convoy from Mogadishu and by helicopter to secure Baidoa's disused air base for the relief effort.

'It's a show of force and that's very deliberate,' Marine Colonel Greg Newbold, who commanded the escort, said of the display of military might. 'There are people who don't want us to be here, who benefit from unescorted convoys . . . This will deter the people who prevent the food convoys getting through.'

Baidoa, at the epicentre of a famine that has killed 300,000 people in Somalia, had been at the mercy of looting gunmen until yesterday's dawn arrival of a foreign force which is set to swell to several thousand. Relief agency officials in the town, fought over and pillaged for two years by rival clans, have had to barricade themselves inside their compounds and pay gunmen thousands of dollars for protection on the streets.

'Today, for the first time, I didn't need to have armed guards on my cars to deliver food to the orphanage,' said Paul Jones, World Vision's deputy director in Baidoa. One foreign relief agency helping to run the orphanage pulled out of Baidoa last week because of insecurity. Somalis said the home had been looted twice in seven months.

Robert Oakley, the UN Special Envoy to Somalia, yesterday confirmed that there had been logistical problems in reaching Baidoa before yesterday and he regretted that the operation was delayed. This is the first time the US has admitted any difficulties in Operation Restore Hope. The response of official spokesmen so far has been that everything has gone according to plan. But one senior aid official said last week: 'There was a logistic cock-up. In private, the Americans are squirming with embarrassment.'

(Photograph omitted)